Friday, December 26, 2008

A practice worth repeating

Here's a practice worth repeating: Voice of San Diego education reporter Emily Alpert is making a deal with readers: "Post questions you have about the SD school system, and I'll spend my Fridays tracking down the answers."

It's a great news strategy because it:

  • Produces better coverage. Alpert & the Voice of San Diego get tipped to all sorts of interesting goings-on worth reporting on that they might not have heard of otherwise.

  • Builds loyalty -- and thus increases readership. Anytime you allow someone to participate in what you're doing, you build a sense of ownership in them, and that ownership builds commitment to stick with you.

  • Increases ad impressions. It's a system that requires repeat visits (once to post the question and once, at least, to get the answer). That ups the number of eyeballs hitting the site.

To make it work, however, Alpert is going to need to do the following:


  • Track down as many answers as possible. Asking people to participate then not delivering on your promise is a sure way to turn off readers.

  • Deliver high-quality answers. Not just perfunctory statements from spokespeople. But genuine explanations to the issues readers want answered. Nothing will turn readers off faster than getting the same boiled over statements they could have gotten themselves.

Sure, Alpert will probably get more questions than she can possibly answer. And getting high-quality answers also takes time. So how should Alpert negotiate these challenges in ways that build loyalty?


  • Communicate with her readers about what she can and cannot do. Behind every reader is a reasonable human being. Human beings much prefer getting feedback, even if it's not the news they wanted, than silence. Ever been on a plane that's sitting at the gate long after its scheduled departure time? Does your blood pressure go up with every minute that passes with no news from the crew about the reason for the delay? And does it go down the minute someone explains what's going on, even if it brings bad news, like it's going to take another 45 minutes to fix whatever the problem is? Same thing with this. As long as Alpert communicates back what she can and cannot do, readers will be happy. But not giving any of the backstory will provoke discontent.

  • Enlist readers to help her answer. Encourage other readers in the know to post whatever they know. At a minimum, it'll turbo-charge Alpert's own reporting, helping her focus her efforts on the places where the answers lie. At most, it might even result in the answer itself, saving Alpert from having to do any groundwork herself.

Alpert's strategy is a great example of how moving news on to the Internet is not about just throwing the same old content that appears in print form out into the ethernet -- but it's about using the specific capabilities of the new media to produce better coverage and increase readership.

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